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John Pilger on Blair, Olympic deals and why another world is possible

The criminality of Tony Blair, rehabilitated by Ed Miliband, remains umentionable; but there is another way.

This is a story of two letters and two Britains. The first letter was written by Sebastian Coe, the former athlete who chairs the London Olympics organising committee. He is now called Lord Coe. In the New Statesman of 25 June, I reported an urgent appeal to Coe by the Vietnam Women’s Union that he and the International Olympic Committee reconsider their decision to accept sponsorship from Dow Chemical, one of the companies that manufactured dioxin, a poison used against the population of Vietnam. Code-named Agent Orange, this weapon of mass destruction was “dumped” on Vietnam, according to a US Senate report of 1970, in what was called Operation Hades. The letter to Coe estimates that today 4.8 million of the victims of Agent Orange are children, all of them shockingly deformed.

In his reply, Coe describes Agent Orange as “a highly emotional issue” whose development and use were “made by the US government [which] has rightly led the process of addressing the many issues that have resulted”. He refers to a “constructive dialogue” between the US and Vietnamese governments “to resolve issues”. They are “best placed to manage the reconciliation of these two countries”. When I read this, I was reminded of the weasel letters that are a specialty of the Foreign Office in denying evidence of crimes of state and corporate power, such as the lucrative export of terrible weapons. The former Iraq desk officer Mark Higson called this sophistry “a culture of lying”.

The unmentionables

I sent Coe’s letter to a number of authorities on Agent Orange. The reactions were unerring. “There has been no initiative at all by the US government to address the health and econo­mic effects on the people of Vietnam affected by dioxin,” wrote the respected US attorney Constantine Kokkoris, who led an action against Dow Chemical. He noted that “manufacturers like Dow were aware of the presence and harmfulness of dioxin in their product but failed to inform the government in an effort to avoid regulation”. According to the War Legacies Project, none of the health, environmental and economic problems caused by the world’s most enduring chemical warfare has been addressed by the US. Non-government agencies have helped “only a small number of those in need”. A “clean-up” in a “dioxin hot spot” in the city of Da Nang, to which Coe refers, is a sham; none of the money allocated by Congress has gone directly to the Vietnamese or has reached those most severely disabled from the cancers associated with Agent Orange.

For this reason, Coe’s mention of “reconciliation” is profane, as if there were an equivalence between an invading superpower and its victims. His letter exemplifies the “spirit” of the London Olympics’ razor-wired, PR-and-money-fuelled totalitarian state within a state, which you enter, appropriately, through a Westfield shopping mall. How dare you complain about the missiles on the roof of your flats, a magistrate hectored 86 East Enders. How dare any of you protest at the “ZiL car lanes” for Olympic apparatchiks and the boys from Dow and Coke. With the media in charge of Olympics excitement, as it was for “shock and awe” in Iraq in 2003, enter the man who played a starring role in making both spectacles possible.

On 11 July, an Olympics evening, “a coming together of the Labour tribe”, declared Ed Mili­band, celebrated its “star guest” Tony Blair’s 2005 gift of the Games and “provided the perfect opportunity for Blair’s return to front-line politics”, the Guardian reported. The organiser of this contrivance was Alastair Campbell, chief spinner of the bloodbath that Blair and he gifted to the Iraqi people. And just as the victims of Dow Chemical are of no interest to the Olympic elite, so the criminality of Labour’s star guest was unmentionable.

The source of the Olympics’ chaotic security is also unmentionable. As established studies have long conceded, it was the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the rest of the “war on terror” that served to recruit new jihadists and bolster other forms of resistance that led directly to the London bombs of 7/7. These were Blair’s bombs. In his current rehabilitation, courtesy of his Olympics “legacy”, note the additional spin that Blair’s post-Downing Street wealth is concentrated on charities.

The second letter I mentioned was sent to me by Josh Richards, who lives in Bristol. In March 2003, Josh set out to disable an American B-52 bomber based at RAF Fairford, Gloucestershire, before it could bomb Iraq. So did four other people. It was a non-violent action faithful to the Nuremberg principle that a war of aggression is the “paramount war crime”. Josh was arrested and charged with planning to lay explosives.

Determined decency

“This was based on the ludicrous idea,” he wrote, “that some peanut butter I had on me was actually a bomb component. The charge was later abandoned after the Ministry of Defence performed extensive tests on my Tesco Crunchy Peanut Butter.”

After two trials and two hung juries, Josh was finally acquitted in 2007. It was a landmark case in which he spoke in open court about the genocidal embargo imposed on Iraq by the British and US governments before their invasion and the false justifications of the “war on terror”. His acquittal confirmed that he had acted in the name of the law and his intention had been to save lives.

The letter Josh wrote to me was enclosed in a copy of my book The New Rulers of the World, which, he pointed out, had provided him with the facts he needed for his defence. Meticulously page-marked and highlighted, it had accompanied him on a three-year journey through courtrooms and prison cells. Of all the letters I have received, Josh’s epitomises a decency, modesty and determination of moral purpose that represent another Britain and are antidotes to poisonous Olympic sponsors and rehabilitated warmongers.

During these extraordinary times, such an example ought to give others heart and inspiration to reclaim this receding democracy.

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: the future

Photo: Getty Images
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A simple U-Turn may not be enough to get the Conservatives out of their tax credit mess

The Tories are in a mess over cuts to tax credits. But a mere U-Turn may not be enough to fix the problem. 

A spectre is haunting the Conservative party - the spectre of tax credit cuts. £4.4bn worth of cuts to the in-work benefits - which act as a top-up for lower-paid workers - will come into force in April 2016, the start of the next tax year - meaning around three million families will be £1,000 worse off. For most dual-earner families affected, that will be the equivalent of a one partner going without pay for an entire month.

The politics are obviously fairly toxic: as one Conservative MP remarked to me before the election, "show me 1,000 people in my constituency who would happily take a £1,000 pay cut, then we'll cut welfare". Small wonder that Boris Johnson is already making loud noises about the coming cuts, making his opposition to them a central plank of his 

Tory nerves were already jittery enough when the cuts were passed through the Commons - George Osborne had to personally reassure Conservative MPs that the cuts wouldn't result in the nightmarish picture being painted by Labour and the trades unions. Now that Johnson - and the Sun - have joined in the chorus of complaints.

There are a variety of ways the government could reverse or soften the cuts. The first is a straightforward U-Turn: but that would be politically embarrassing for Osborne, so it's highly unlikely. They could push back the implementation date - as one Conservative remarked - "whole industries have arranged their operations around tax credits now - we should give the care and hospitality sectors more time to prepare". Or they could adjust the taper rates - the point in your income  at which you start losing tax credits, taking away less from families. But the real problem for the Conservatives is that a mere U-Turn won't be enough to get them out of the mire. 

Why? Well, to offset the loss, Osborne announced the creation of a "national living wage", to be introduced at the same time as the cuts - of £7.20 an hour, up 50p from the current minimum wage.  In doing so, he effectively disbanded the Low Pay Commission -  the independent body that has been responsible for setting the national minimum wage since it was introduced by Tony Blair's government in 1998.  The LPC's board is made up of academics, trade unionists and employers - and their remit is to set a minimum wage that provides both a reasonable floor for workers without costing too many jobs.

Osborne's "living wage" fails at both counts. It is some way short of a genuine living wage - it is 70p short of where the living wage is today, and will likely be further off the pace by April 2016. But, as both business-owners and trade unionists increasingly fear, it is too high to operate as a legal minimum. (Remember that the campaign for a real Living Wage itself doesn't believe that the living wage should be the legal wage.) Trade union organisers from Usdaw - the shopworkers' union - and the GMB - which has a sizable presence in the hospitality sector -  both fear that the consequence of the wage hike will be reductions in jobs and hours as employers struggle to meet the new cost. Large shops and hotel chains will simply take the hit to their profit margins or raise prices a little. But smaller hotels and shops will cut back on hours and jobs. That will hit particularly hard in places like Cornwall, Devon, and Britain's coastal areas - all of which are, at the moment, overwhelmingly represented by Conservative MPs. 

The problem for the Conservatives is this: it's easy to work out a way of reversing the cuts to tax credits. It's not easy to see how Osborne could find a non-embarrassing way out of his erzatz living wage, which fails both as a market-friendly minimum and as a genuine living wage. A mere U-Turn may not be enough.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.